What Is the Future of Masks at BU?
Judy Platt, chief health officer, answers questions about the University’s COVID-19 policy and protocols, and when things might begin to ease
The questions are popping up with greater frequency. On Reddit. On Twitter. In comments on stories. On the streets. When a commenter on Rhett-it, the “official unofficial subreddit for the Boston University community,” asked this question recently, “Do you guys think BU will continue requiring masks next semester?” answers varied, from “Probably” to “Definitely” to “Unclear.” And then this: “They need to at the very least give a timeline for when restrictions will ease instead of acting like everyone’s perfectly happy to wear masks.”
So, BU Today took the questions about masks straight to Judy Platt, BU’s chief health officer and executive director of Student Health Services.
With Judy Platt
BU Today: Are you hearing more questions these days about when BU might relax or loosen its mask requirements on campus?
Judy Platt: With widespread vaccination, I think that consistent indoor mask use is something that has been hard. From an illness prevention standpoint, whether it’s the flu, rhinovirus, or COVID, it is clear that mask use is beneficial and very effective. The unintended consequences, however, are easy to see, especially as we all deal with the realities of mask use and the way it changes how we engage with one another and our ability to communicate verbally and nonverbally. So, yes, we are starting to hear some questions about the mask mandate—especially related to what BU might do if the cities of Boston and Brookline remove their mandates.
BU Today: As far as you can tell, is the mask mandate a major factor, or just one of several factors, in keeping COVID contained at BU?
Judy Platt: We know from our internal data that viral transmission happens when masks are removed. While mask use is one of many factors that we have utilized in our multilayered approach at BU, it is an important one, because it is about primary prevention of COVID transmission. We can also look to examples around the United States and in Europe as to what happens with cases as public health protocols are removed.
BU Today: Is there a certain metric or number that will guide the mask decision at BU? Or do you only wait for guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before making a decision?
Judy Platt: We will continue to look at our own BU-specific data in conjunction with guidance from the CDC, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and the Boston Public Health Commission. The CDC recently updated its Guidance for Institutions of Higher Education. With respect to mask use, they are recommending that even for fully vaccinated persons, masking indoors is recommended in areas of substantial or high community transmission. We are currently seeing substantial and high rates of transmission in our surrounding counties.
BU Today: Are there certain situations where masks have been required until now that we might see loosened first, before the entire mask policy is changed? Or would it be more of a blanket change?
Judy Platt: We anticipate gradual easing of the mask mandates here at BU and do not envision a blanket change. Certainly, we will encourage anyone who is not feeling well to wear a mask whether or not a mask mandate is in effect. This is something we have done for years at Student Health Services, and it makes good public health sense.
BU Today: If, as some experts are saying, we are just going to have to learn to live with COVID, what will that mean for mask-wearing down the road?
Judy Platt: This is such a great and important question. We are seeing more stories about the COVID pandemic and its transition to an endemic. (David Hamer, a School of Public Health and School of Medicine professor of global health and medicine, did an interview with Bloomberg very recently on this!) I think we have already adapted so much and learned to “live with COVID” in many ways.
If modeling and predictions are correct and we see cases and deaths in the United States continue to decrease over the winter and early spring, then I do think we will be well on our way to living with COVID as an illness that has surges of cases due to seasonality, and specific areas where outbreaks may continue, but is no longer as deadly or likely to cause severe illness.
Specifically for mask use, regardless of where we are with COVID, I hope that people will pull out their favorite mask and wear it proudly whenever they are not feeling well in order to protect others. I also suspect that there are certain activities or places where people will proactively wear a mask to keep themselves healthy.